This had been the strangest day of Gretchen’s life. With all that had happened in the past few weeks, that was saying something. After today’s practice session with Albus, something that seemed to lengthen the more they worked together, Harry had appeared right beside her out of nowhere. Then, with a twist of his arms around his shoulders, he’d disappeared again, reappearing the next moment looking as if it were great fun.
Gretchen had thought it was dizzying and had been more than pleased when Severus told Harry to stop showing off.
Harry had appeared disappointed, as if he’d expected whatever he was doing to be a trigger for her. This is what they were calling things now, ‘triggers’, if she was meant to remember something. ‘Links’ were the bits they set up for her, and she suspected that they determined what links to use from observing her ‘triggers’. If she hadn’t been so desperate to remember, she would never have allowed them set her up again and again.
“It’s an invisibility cloak,” Harry had explained.
When he placed it around Gretchen’s shoulders, her skin had tingled as if there was carbonation just underneath. Nevertheless, she had liked it; it had felt like putting on an old, comfy jumper. It hadn’t been as nice as when she got to lie in Severus’s bed, but it had been close.
Harry had refused to tell her why it was so nice for her, though, and Albus had proceeded to tell her that she’d be sneaking into the castle today, and that they couldn’t let the students see her, and that this was the best way.
They had walked up to the castle surrounded by a small crowd of people who were talking amongst themselves but not to her, which had been remarkably uncomfortable for Gretchen. They had continued inside of the castle, a first for her, but they had hurried her along through the silent halls. Then Harry had paced in front of a wall three times, saying, “We need to go to Hogsmeade Station,” as he did so.
Then a doorway had appeared, and once she’d entered, a plume of steam greeted Gretchen when she crossed the threshold. Gretchen had found herself at a railway station where the word ‘Hogsmeade’ had been posted in shining gold letters.
Standing there now, she couldn’t believe her eyes. It was simply impossible that this could be inside the castle.
“Firs’ years! Firs’ years over here!”
Gretchen froze in her tracks. Hagrid was here. Whoever Hagrid was, he was here. With her heart pounding in her chest, Gretchen wove between the people at the train station.
“Firs’ years! Firs’ years over here!”
She felt as if his voice was getting further and further away, but she finally broke free from the throngs of people. Gretchen couldn’t believe there were so many people in Hogsmeade. It was just a few shops and some cottages, after all!
Not paying attention to where she was headed now, Gretchen ran to catch up with Hagrid. Looking this way and that, she failed to notice a loose brick in the path. She stumbled forwards, completely out of control.
“Who’s that, now?” asked the impossibly gigantic man upon whom Gretchen had landed.
She thought to apologise immediately, but he hardly seemed to notice the impact. Instead she watched as a huge smile broke across his face, his teeth appearing in the centre of a massive beard, and his cheeks looking rosy where they could be seen.
“Well, if it isn’t H—“
Someone cleared their throat loudly, and Hagrid looked as if he’d been about to say something he shouldn’t. That thought pleased Gretchen.
“I mean, er, that is to say... What’s your name, there, miss?” Hagrid tucked his hands behind his back and swayed softly on his heels.
She had no idea what to say. What was her name? He was Hagrid and she was...
Again, somewhere, someone in the crowd cleared his throat loudly, and Gretchen thought she saw Hagrid jump a bit, the ground shaking just a bit with him as he landed.
“Rubeus Hagrid,” he said, extending his hand to her to shake it.
She laughed. It looked as if he could fit practically her whole arm in his grasp if he chose. “Keeper of Keys and Grounds at Hogwarts.”
“Right you are!” He beamed down at her, and she felt that he was an indulgent and generous soul. “Care to join me at the Thre—“
Someone behind them must surely have quite the sore throat, as often as they seemed to be trying to clear it. Gretchen looked behind her to see who it was, but where there had been a crowd of people, there were only a few on the path to Hogsmeade.
Beside her, Hagrid was waiting, watching her. She realised that she had missed Hagrid a great deal and found herself joining him without question. The two started to walk towards town, Gretchen using her staff as a walking stick.
Severus ground his teeth, following Hagrid and Hermione at a sufficient distance that he would be concealed from sight, but where his Extendable Ear would still pick up what they were saying. The latest version was more like a Muggle hearing aid, which was useful for reconnaissance. Hagrid had been a good friend to Severus, and Severus knew he cared deeply for Hermione, but he was something of a loose cannon and Severus did not want Hermione—Gretchen to get too excited.
Within the first few minutes, Severus felt that he would have to resort to stinging hexes if Hagrid kept on as he was.
“Would you like to make a report now, Severus? You’ve made sure everyone else has consulted with me with prompt, thorough efficiency, and yet you yourself have yet to make it up to my office.”
Severus felt his temple throb. He did not want to give Albus a bloody report! He wanted to listen to what Hagrid and Gretchen were saying.
“Now, Severus, you and I both know that a debriefing is about more than sharing information,” Albus continued, drawing close enough that he could have laid his hand on Severus’s arm, although he hadn’t yet.
For the first time in a long time, Severus felt a rumble at the back of his throat, the sort of sound that had once made any first-years in earshot piss themselves. It seemed that Albus Dumbledore had the ability to draw out the worst of Severus’s temper with just a few words.
He had forgotten that. He had forgotten what it was like to do all of this careful, delicate work. Rori had helped him forget. Severus was astonished at how hard it was to kill bad habits. He cleared his throat and said, “Everything is going as well as we could have imagined.”
And that was true. Rori and Gretchen were getting on very well. The cottage felt full and happy. Every day, if he looked hard enough, Severus thought he could see the two parts weaving together, although he tried not to search. He didn’t want to depend on what he thought he was seeing; he wanted to see it finished.
“How are you faring?” Albus asked, leaning on his staff as if he were a very old man.
Severus didn’t believe that for a minute. Since starting their practice, it was well-known that Albus Dumbledore was feeling invigorated, like a wizard in his eighties, not his hundreds.
But that question! It was the one Severus liked least. Throughout his tenure as a double agent, this question had been the only acknowledgement, the only nod to the true nature of the work Severus was doing. It was a question that could drop him as easily as a breath could fell a house of cards. It was amazing how, even now, years after the fact, it shook him.
Time warped in that moment. How dare Albus use that against him when he needs to focus his attention on Gretchen and Hagrid! He was just about to tell Albus off, but the old man spoke again.
“I imagine that it is difficult for a wizard to see someone who simultaneously is and is not his wife, and that sharing a bed with her would stir a great tumult in the depths of his being.”
Severus stopped in his tracks, spinning to grab Albus’s shoulder, possibly more tightly than necessary. “You know very well that I do not share a bed with Gretchen Jones.”
Blue eyes stared up at him, and Albus waited before he replied. “Neville reported that she quite liked your bed after he left her there at the conclusion of his visit.”
“Longbottom put her there by mistake,” Severus growled. “Besides, that was weeks ago.”
“And she has not found her way back there in the interim?” Albus stared up at Severus.
It was obvious, then, that Albus had not forgotten how to weather the storms he stirred in Severus. Like a man against a raging tide, Albus stood with his heels planted in the path to Hogsmeade, his staff planted as well, staring at Severus.
Before Severus could speak, though, Albus said, “I know that you believe Rori is the key to resurrecting Hermione, Severus, and that is probably true. You forget, though, that you are her husband, ever-faithful. Hermione Granger would not discount such a thing. If you think she would return for Rori alone, I believe you are quite mistaken.”
Clenching his fingers into Albus’s shoulder, Severus felt his guts roil inside him. Then he let go, turning away. “You are the single most infuriating wizard I have ever met.”
Around them, though, the room began to change. The way to Hogsmeade seemed to fade, and the room became a vast hall inhabited only by Severus, Albus, and Hagrid, who was standing at the far end.
“Where is Gretchen?” Severus bellowed at Hagrid, who flinched, spilling a bit of what looked to be butter beer. Severus stormed forward, eyes snapping around the room.
“I dunno. We went to Honeydukes and then to Rosmerta’s an’ she had half a butterbeer before she got up.”
Hagrid looked just as he did years ago, when he’d told Severus and Albus about how he’d let it slip to the Golden Bloody Trio how to get past his bloody three-headed dog.
Severus reigned in his temper. “Well, she can’t possibly have left the school. What do we know about Hogsmeade and the school?”
Smiling, Albus said, “There are numerous secret routes between them, if you recall.”
Severus pivoted on his heel, marching toward the door. As his robes turned and snapped around him, he only hoped that Hermione stayed with them long enough that he could bloody well throttle her for doing this to him.
“And then I remembered! Harry couldn’t go to Hogsmeade in the beginning, but he sneaked out once using his invisibility cloak through the passage to Honeydukes! I was so excited. I had to see if I was right, so I walked out of Rosmerta’s and back to Honeydukes. Then into the store room and down the tunnel and I was! I was right!” Gretchen pounded on Hagrid’s table in triumph.
The cups clinked against their saucers. Hagrid and Harry and Severus and she were having a bit of tea at Hagrid’s house. Gretchen loved the feel of his old cottage; it was like something from a dream. Harry said that some of her dreams were memories, and she liked the idea so very much that she had hugged him when he said it.
It seemed like a most natural thing to do.
And Harry hugged her back, smiling and obviously pleased that she had done it. Severus just pursed his lips and looked away. Gretchen wasn’t sure how she felt about that. Amused, on the one hand, and confused on the other. Severus didn’t seem to be a hugger. Well, except when Rori did it, but she was his daughter. Although, when they had gone to Diagon Alley, he had said that embracing, while ‘not strictly required’, was not forbidden either.
She did like having him close. She liked it very much. He never responded to her the same way twice. Sometimes Gretchen thought that he was indulging her, like a person cooing to someone taking their first steps after a serious accident. Sometimes he tensed up, as if he didn’t know what to do. Sometimes, the best and worst times, he would hold her as well. Obviously, this was the best reaction, but it usually meant that something had happened, some incident. Gretchen was confused by those, and she hated not being clear about things.
A big yawn interrupted her train of thought, and her eyes darted to Severus. He took a long swallow before setting his cup on the table. Gretchen said, “Best not to over-exert.” It was a variation of the things Severus had been saying over the passing weeks. She watched his face, and his eyebrows lowered just a hair. His eyes, though, seemed to sparkle.
They started standing up, saying goodbyes, manoeuvring so that Gretchen and Severus could go, when she looked over at a specific spot. “Slugs.”
The others froze.
“Slugs.” She turned to look at them. Her eyes flitted between their faces. Severus watched her as if she were a slug herself, and he a hungry bird. Hagrid looked as if he wanted to distract her, as if he didn’t want to remember this with her. Harry, the furthest away but bold in her mind, pressed his lips together and hummed.
Then, she joined him. “M-m-m-Mudblood.” Like keys on a piano, blocks fell into place. “Malfoy called me a Mudblood, Ron tried to hex him, and we came to Hagrid’s.”
Harry smiled at her, sad but proud.
What a horrible thing to remember. But it was hers. It was her horrible thing, and Ron and Harry and the others had defended her.
She felt heavy. “I’d like to go home now, Severus.”
“And so we shall.” They said their final goodbyes, and Severus came to wrap his arms around her. Her arms tightened around his chest too, and he popped them out of the front of Hagrid’s place and popped them right into their bedroom. She was relieved that Rori was at Harry’s house for the day; she could just walk over to the bed without a care for anything but herself.
Severus sat beside her for a long time. They were quiet, and it was nice. Then, she had to voice her biggest concern. “That’s not the worst thing Malfoy ever did, was it?”
“Not in the least, although Draco Malfoy is very small potatoes compared to any number of other antagonists in this story.” Severus scrubbed his scalp with his fingertips for a moment before turning to her. “You will recall that I asked you if you would want to know, even if it was the stuff of nightmares.”
“Would you like to go to your home now? Your quiet life is waiting for you; you can have a reprieve.”
The suggestion startled her. “Like bloody hell I will.” She couldn’t leave now, couldn’t imagine going back. “This is my home now. Here!” She pounded on the mattress below her. “How could you even ask that?”
“Just a litmus test, if you will.”
She nodded. “Would it be alright if I rest, then?” Before he could say ‘of course’, her head was on the pillow, smelling it deeply. She pulled the covers over her, and it felt like Severus was holding her, his scent invading her senses as she dropped off to sleep.